The Old-Time Herald Volume 11, Number 1

Ora Watson—Watauga County’s Senior Musician
“Music keeps me young!”
By Mark Freed
Photo: Cedric N. Chatterley
Listen to Lost John by the Ora Watson and the Laurel Creek String Band (Mary Greene, Cecil Gurganus, and Rick Stone.)
Download this MP3 (1.8mb zip)

Leaving my office in Boone, North Carolina one afternoon in May, I drove to the western part of Watauga County for a visit with Ora Watson. I parked my car, grabbed a banjo from the back seat, and walked inside where I found my friend Cecil Gurganus visiting with Ora in the living room. Ora asked me to come closer so she could see me, so I got within a few inches of her face.

“You’re good looking,” she said, giggling as if a teenager. At 95 years old—96 by the time of publication—Ora Watson is Watauga County’s most senior mountain musician, but perhaps the youngest at heart. …

I first met Ora during one of her performances with the Laurel Creek String Band about four years ago. After the performance, at ten o’clock at night, Cecil Gurganus brought Ora by my house to play some music. Of course, I was quite impressed to have a 91-year-old musician playing tunes with me so late into the evening. And I was floored when she picked up my banjo and played a bluesy version of “Shortning Bread” far up the neck in a two-finger up-picking style. …

A song list Ora keeps in her fiddle case lists 58 pieces, and in researching for this article, I have found at least 30 tunes not on the list. Listening to some home recordings borrowed from Mary Greene, I have heard Ora play “Freight Train” on the guitar, “Little Brown Jug,” on the fiddle, sing “Turn Your Radio On,” and pick or clawhammer “Cindy” on the banjo. She plays waltzes learned from the radio, sacred songs learned from singing in church, folksongs learned from family members, traditional fiddle tunes, and songs written by musicians she has known throughout her musical career, such as “Bulldog Down in Sunny Tennessee,” from Dock Walsh. She is also amazing at adapting to the tune or situation, playing in whatever key the banjo is tuned to despite where she might normally play the tune. At jam sessions and forming repertories for her various bands, Ora’s musical ear allows her to improvise masterfully, and instantly adapt to the tune. …


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